The Island at the Center of the World: The Silencing of Bahrain’s Crisis

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 9 Issue: 19

Bahrain’s state television recently announced that the Kingdom’s “State of National Safety” emergency law, which allowed the monarchy to swiftly crush once pulsing opposition protests, will not be extended further than June 1, two weeks ahead of the original deadline (al-Jazeera, May 8). The three-month state of emergency was declared on March 15, as pro-democracy protests developed into an anti-regime uprising and engulfed much of downtown Manama’s financial district. A day prior to the emergency law’s declaration, armored columns from Saudi Arabia poured into the tiny island nation via the 26 kilometer long King Fahd Causeway that connects Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province with the Bahrain archipelago (see Terrorism Monitor Brief, March 24). According to a statement from Bahrain’s state news agency, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia “enjoy ideal relations,” having stood together in solidarity when faced with “Iranian threats” (Bahrain News Agency, May 9). In a very unfortunate development for Bahrain’s nascent pro-democracy movement, no sooner did the uprising devolve into violence than both Saudi Arabia and Iran turned the island into a sectarian propaganda proxy war. Neither side in the conflict has let up on the constant drumbeat of drama in a situation largely cast aside by both the global media and great powers. In an attempt to further agitate the situation, Iranian state television aired a documentary equating the Saudi intervention in Bahrain with the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian Territories, broadcasting footage of desecrated Shi’a mosques and hussainiyas (congregation halls for Shi’a rituals), as well as damaged Shi’a holy books (Press TV, May 9).

Bahrain’s principal opposition party is al-Wefaq, which withdrew from parliament at the outset of the crisis to demonstrate its abhorrence at the crackdown (AFP, February 17). Al-Wefaq claimed in April that government forces had demolished no less than 30 Shi’a places of worship. Representatives of Bahrain’s ruler, King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa, have issued thinly justified decrees that such “unlicensed” sites are being destroyed “regardless of any doctrine.” Al-Wefaq released a statement refuting the regime’s legal rationale: “Any attempt to showcase the measure as a legal action will neither be convincing nor objective” (AP, April 24). The bulldozing of Shi’a centers, some of them ancient, may be due to the growth of intolerant Wahhabi values in the Sunni-run security forces. These security forces have become stocked with recruits from Sunni communities in Pakistan and from poorer regions of the Sunni Arab world. Another possible driver in the attacks on Shi’a institutions may be an opportunistic attempt by descendants of Sunni settlers to erase the history of the island’s indigenous Shi’a communities, which long predate the al-Khalifa dynasty established in 1783.

On the Ground

Jamestown paid a hurried visit to the besieged Persian Gulf kingdom in early April. During an attempt to visit the now notorious Pearl Roundabout, once the site of camping protesters in a pro-democracy uprising that began on February 14, Bahraini National Guardsmen rushed over in an armored vehicle informing the author that the roundabout had been designated a closed area where photography was forbidden. Not only was photography forbidden, but apparently simply looking at the heavily militarized zone with the naked eye was also unwelcome. Jamestown was instructed to leave the area shrouded in row upon row of concertina wire, entirely barricaded off from the rest of Manama’s Central Business District. Forlorn South Asian migrant vendors milled about, unable to do any trade in fish or produce in the once bustling Central Market area after it became isolated from the other half of the city by Kevlar-clad troops.

Other areas of downtown Manama maintained the appearance of a war zone with tanks and armored personnel carriers careening around with abandon, driving over traffic medians and manning a plethora of intimidating checkpoints. Jamestown was told by a pair of bearded soldiers manning a checkpoint along King Faisal Corniche opposite Reef Island that walking in this zone was no longer permitted. These soldiers bore no national insignia on their fatigues, paid no attention to several Bangladeshi men casually bicycling by and attempted to detain this analyst for an unspecified violation.  A Sunni taxi driver who said he supported the regime described the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) intervention forces from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates as a “cocktail” in that they readily blended with Bahraini units so as to lessen the appearance of a foreign military occupation.  A leaked U.S. Embassy cable from 2007 describes the Bahraini security forces as containing almost “no Shi’a,” describing the use of Shi’a “community police” in Shi’a majority areas of the country. [1]

The author spoke with prominent dissident and Director of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights Nabeel Rajab about the festering crisis. [2] An outspoken critic of the al-Khalifa monarchy, Rajab viewed the announcement of the ending of the state of emergency two weeks ahead of schedule with a high degree of cynicism. He believed that the monarchy was essentially trying to save the economy from a total meltdown. The announcement, meant to forestall further capital flight from Bahrain’s once thriving financial services sector, was, in Rajab’s view, principally driven by the need to preserve the prestigious annual Formula One Grand Prix auto race. While the 2011 race was cancelled before Saudi troops entered Bahrain, a decision on whether the 2012 race will still be held in that country is to be made on June 3, 12 days before the planned date to end the emergency (AFP, May 3).

Rajab described the Formula One issue as an important socio-economic indicator for the monarchy. A negative decision by the international sports body may further the continued outflow of foreign investment and Asian migrant workers on which the services sector is desperately dependent. The return of the Grand Prix may signify an economic lifeline. A denial by the sport body may be a walk to the gallows for Bahrain’s endangered business sector as international confidence continues to ebb.

The Role of Iran

Nabeel Rajab scoffed at the constant talk of Iranian interference in Bahraini affairs. He spoke of a concerted effort by the Bahraini government to link the pro-democracy movement with Iran in any way possible. When asked about King Hamad’s public talk of as yet unproven Iranian linkages to the crushed protest movement, Rajab asserted: “No Bahraini democrats see Iran as a system to emulate.”

Rajab related recent appearances by both King Hamad and Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa— also the Deputy Supreme Commander of the 9000-strong Bahrain Defense Forces— in which they stated, respectively, that there was “no problem” with Iran and “no one [in Bahrain] has any relations with Iran.” High-ranking Bahraini officials regularly make bellicose, though mostly unsubstantiated, accusations about their Iranian neighbors but do not seek to anger Tehran on a diplomatic level. Bahraini Foreign Minister Shaykh Khalid bin Ahmad al-Khalifa stated in a closed-door meeting of MPs that the Kingdom had no intention of severing ties with the Iranian state despite its “continuous interference” in Bahrain’s internal dynamics (Gulf Daily News [Manama], May 10). Rajab sees the Bahraini government’s contradictory stance toward Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei as evidence that Manama is in a bit of policy disarray: “The [Bahraini] opposition insists the uprising is an internal issue [unrelated to alleged Iranian agitation]…there are no formal political relations [with Iran].”

While the Bahraini government makes inconsistent declarations about its thoroughly rocky and complicated relations with the Islamic Republic, a formerly confidential quote appearing in a leaked embassy cable provides insight into the Iranian question vis-à-vis Bahrain. In a discussion with leading Sunni parliamentarian Ghanem al-Buanain during a 2007 visit to Bahrain by President Ahmadinejad, U.S. Ambassador Joseph Adam Ereli inquired as to why, when the regime regularly slams the Iranian president publicly, Crown Prince al-Khalifa still greets Ahmadinejad at the airport while King Hamad, in turn, sends him off. Al-Buanain replied: “Because we’re Arabs. We don’t like them [Iranians], but we need them.” [3] It is interesting to note that, despite the official pleasantries bestowed on Ahmadinejad, he was whisked from the airport on the adjacent island of al-Muharraq, a Sunni stronghold, to al-Gudiabiya palace in central Manama, flanked by heavy security and with no way to personally interact with the country’s Shi’a Arab populace, something Ahmadinejad would surely love to have done if provided the opportunity.

The Diversified Future of Bahraini Energy

For all of the bitter rhetoric between Bahrain and Iran since the February 14 uprising and the brutal, Saudi-backed crackdown, neither the al-Khalifa monarchy nor the Ahmadinejad government, both bound by pure economic realpolitik, wants to derail a protracted quid pro quo natural gas deal both sides have been constructing for years. Manama and Tehran have been in talks for several years about the expanded development of the South Pars gas field. South Pars is the world’s largest natural gas field with a roughly 1/3-2/3 split between Iran and the State of Qatar, respectively (Mehr News Agency, June 15, 2010). [4] The potential of the massive deposits in South Pars could have massive mutual economic benefits for both parties if they can put their sectarian differences aside long enough to finalize an agreement.

To the dismay of American officials in the region, Ahmadinejad has been actively working to get Bahrain to invest heavily in South Pars in exchange for Iranian gas exports. Iran’s then foreign minister, Manouchehr Mottaki, described the deal in a Bahraini pro-government daily: “According to agreements, Bahrain will invest in South Pars phases and Iran will take part in Bahrain’s refining and petrochemical industries, and finally Iran’s gas will be exported to Bahrain” (Gulf Daily News, June 30, 2010). Since an initial agreement was signed between the two Persian Gulf nations in 2008, intermittent ethno-religious tension has been a persistent hindrance to a long-lasting, definitive agreement on South Pars. Bilateral energy sector ties are under severe pressure since the February 14 Shi’a-led uprising, but the process has not been derailed beyond repair. As recently as the fall of 2010, Iran’s Oil Minister Masoud Mir Kazzemi met with Bahrain’s Oil and Gas Affairs Minister Abdul Hussain bin Ali Mirza to discuss a deal on the export of Iranian gas to Bahrain. Iran’s Deputy Oil Minister Javed Oji told Iran’s semi-official news agency “If [a South Pars deal is] finalized, a new natural gas pipeline will be built under the Persian Gulf waters; the pipeline is expected to transfer one billion cubic feet of Iran’s gas to Bahrain” (Fars News Agency, September 5, 2010).

Bahrain’s energy strategy does not simply rely on Iran. Bahrain has made it clear that not only is its domestic gas production in decline, but that it seeks to import gas on a global scale, thereby becoming a net gas exporter and greatly boosting the Kingdom’s prosperity. Following months of turmoil, such a deal may be a means of reviving Bahrain’s sagging economic outlook. Qatar, the world’s largest producer of liquid natural gas, is considering a deal for Bahrain to install a floating re-gasification facility for LNG which would help Bahrain achieve its goal of becoming an energy exporter (Gulf Times [Doha], May 12). More interestingly, Manama’s National Oil and Gas Authority signed a deal with Russian energy giant Gazprom to import natural gas to Bahrain coupled with a potential future pipeline deal or Russian-assisted deep exploration drilling (Arabian Business, October 28, 2010).


Relations between Bahrain and Iran have been historically tense since Bahrain’s independence from the United Kingdom in 1971 was followed by Iran’s Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi claim that Bahrain belonged to Iran. In post-1979 revolutionary Iran, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini did little to ease Bahraini fears on Iranian claims of sovereignty over their country. Bahrain’s sovereignty is currently ensured by the presence of the U.S Fifth Fleet / U.S. Naval Forces Central Command, which replaced an earlier British Royal Navy detachment in 1971. In another revealing U.S. diplomatic cable, an American official says that the al-Khalifas often tell their American partners that they are under constant threat of Iranian “subversion.” The cable goes on to categorically state that the Bahraini claims of Iranian meddling have never been supported by any kind of evidence. [5] American officials based in Manama have never believed that the Shi’a opposition has had weapons supplied to them by Tehran nor do they believe they are involved in any kind of terrorism.

Bahrain is adept at maintaining a delicate balancing act between their larger neighbors, Saudi Arabia and Iran, as well as those further afield, including Britain, the United States, and now the Russian Federation. Caught up in an labyrinthine web of regional ethno-religious demographics, layered with energy sector rivalries, King Hamad will continue to keep up this complex geo-political dance, playing the larger powers off one another while simultaneously trying to suppress his internal Shi’a opposition into submission, if only temporarily.

While Bahrain’s rulers seek to portray a nation returning to a modicum of normalcy, the root causes of Shi’a unrest-turned-rage have yet to be genuinely addressed. Opposition members believe show trials are coming that will prosecute dozens of doctors and nurses, along with prominent jailed MPs like Matar Ibrahim Matar and Jawad Fairuz. As the regime prepares the legal cases against its enemies, Bahrain’s stifled Arab Spring will likely be followed by a darker Arab Autumn.


1. To view the original cable, see: Shi’a Youth In Weekend Skirmishes with Security, Section 5(C), November 15, 2007,
2. Author’s interview with Nabeel Rajab, May 10, 2011.
3. To view the original cable, see: Ahmedinejad Visit To Bahrain, Section 5(C), November 19, 2007,
4. The Qatari share of South Pars is called the North Dome gas-condensate field. The entire field totals 9700 square kilometers in area and is estimated to contain approximately 51 trillion cubic meters of gas.
5. To view the original cable, see: Bahrain’s Relations with Iran, Section 11(S), August 5, 2008,